The Traveling Angler

The Traveling Angler

Fine cutthroat fishing on the Colorado-Wyoming border

  • By: Helen Condict
  • and Pat Case
It was late in the afternoon on the final day of the Outdoor Life Network (OLN) 2003 Fly Fishing Masters tournament at Three Forks Ranch when I finally had a chance to experience this terrific fishery for myself. Helen and I had been invited to the Ranch to glean some stories from the tournament, as well as other aspects of the ranch. One of the guides of this Orvis-endorsed lodge pointed me toward an infrequently fished section on the south fork of the Little Snake River. The dry mid-August grasses were filled with grasshoppers, and I began to herd a wave of them toward the river as I made the short trek to streamside from my vehicle.One by one, it was "plop," followed by the slurp of a big trout. Why can't it be as easy to match all "hatches?" I tied on a hopper imitation and cast it to the center of a pool. One small twitch to imitate the real critter's struggle quickly resulted in the fly being inhaled by one of the Little Snake's Colorado River cutthroats. Casts to two other successive upstream pools also quickly solicited aggressive strikes from trout, which were also quickly netted and released. One has to know the history of this fishery in order to truly appreciate what it is today. The mainstem Little Snake begins in northern Colorado, flows west, skirting the Wyoming/Colorado border, before returning to Colorado and joining the Yampa River and eventually the Green. A north and south fork of the river join the mainstem of the Little Snake River at the ranch headquarters. Altogether, there are 16 miles of trout stream on Three Forks Ranch property. David Pratt, co-owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, bought the ranch in 1999. Prior to that, the property had been overused and abused for nearly 130 years. This resulted in the destruction of the willows habitat along the banks of the river, and bank degradation. Over the years, the river became wider, thus shallower and warmer-which all but destroyed the fishery. Immediately after purchasing the property, Pratt, an avid fly fisher, embarked on what is reportedly the largest-to the tune of $5 million-privately funded river-restoration project ever undertaken. The project was even endorsed by the Sierra Club. The river's restoration was a massive effort, carried out under the guidance of hydrologist Dave Rosgen, a renowned expert in river morphology. The river channel was narrowed, and pools, riffles and runs were created. The alignment of the river was even changed in some reaches to correct past efforts to straighten the stream to facilitate irrigation and road building. About 22,000 large boulders were incorporated in the restoration for erosion control and to create habitat in the stream. Finally, mature willows were planted for shade, as well as sod and grass seed. If the result sounds like a "designer stream," it is. The restored stream and fishery, together with the surrounding blue, green majestic peaks in the heart of the Rockies, make Three Forks a made-for-television venue, which has already been capitalized upon by the producers and film crews of ESPN, OLN and Fox networks. Okay, so how is the fishing really? The fact that Three Forks has been selected for the OLN Fly Fishing Masters Rocky Mountain Regionals now two years in a row pretty much says it all. Where the name of the game was sight-casting to only the largest trout in the stream, our unofficial observation was that most fish caught were in the 18-22 inch range. The largest trout caught during the 2003 OLN tournament was 25 inches! Flies for the Little Snake are the usual Rocky Mountain fare. During the summer months, size 10 to 16 dry flies, including Royal Wulffs, Yellow Humpies, Adams, Goddard Caddis, Elkhair Caddis, PMD's and terrestials (including mice) work well on these big cutthroat. Nymph patterns, including Hares Ears, Prince Nymphs, Pheasant Tail Beadheads, and Flashbacks in size 12 to 20 also work well. But fishing isn't the only thing to do at this destination. Want to be a cowboy for the day? Pull on your 501's, Stetson and Lucchese boots, and General Manager Jay Linderman will put you on a quarter-horse for a day of moving cattle or calf branding with the Three Forks crew; or perhaps a moonlit ride amongst the pines and stars. If horses aren't your best friend, check out one of the many ATV's at your disposal, and cruise the spread's scenic mountain trails and roads. Also at your disposal is a 14-station, master-designed sporting clays course set among the aspen. Designed to accommodate beginners and advanced shooters alike, the course's various positions are designed to mimic everything from rabbits to quail. At the end of the day, we enjoyed cocktails and sumptuous, white tablecloth dinners in the 100-year old restored homestead barn; which also houses a Great Room, filled with overstuffed chairs, sofas, western bronzes and other art work, and St. Louis Cardinals memorabilia, and a huge fireplace perfect for reminiscing about the day's activities around. Our lodging was one of the luxurious, log and rock, cowboy-style three-bedroom homes Three Forks provides its guests, which are complete with river-rock fireplaces, high-beamed living rooms filled with Indian and cowboy artwork, fully stocked kitchens, comfy beds, and covered porches where we relaxed and listened to the musical whistles of the majestic elk in the surrounding forest. Three Forks-located just 40 miles north of the ski town of Steamboat, Colorado, and 15 miles south of the cow town of Dixon, Wyoming-has already earned the reputation as one of the premier fishing destinations in the West. This is not your ordinary fishing destination, and Three Forks Ranch owner, David Pratt, wouldn't have it any other way. Terrific fishing on a fly fisher's designer stream in view of the Continental Divide-we don't know a trout fisherman alive that wouldn't be happy sharing 16 miles of private stream like this with maybe a dozen other anglers for a few days. Contact Three Forks Ranch at 970-583-7396; ThreeForksRanch.com.